An unusual coalition of 35 church groups and organizations that often oppose them joined Thursday to proclaim that religion indeed has a protected place in public schools.
Groups as diverse as the National Association of Evangelicals on one extreme and the American Civil Liberties Union on the other issued a joint statement outlining some religious activities at schools that they all agree are legally protected.They include:
- Students have the right to pray individually or in groups or to discuss their religious views (including reading Bibles) with their peers so long as they are not disruptive. However, school officials cannot encourage or discourage such activity.
- Students may express their religious beliefs in reports, homework and artwork. And teachers may not require students to modify, include or exclude religious views in assignments, if germane.
- Students have the right to distribute religious literature to schoolmates, subject to constitutional restrictions on distribution of all non-school literature.
- Student participation in before- and after-school events such as "see you at the flagpole" prayer sessions is permissible.
- Religious clubs in secondary schools must be allowed on the same basis as other noncurricular activity clubs.
- Schools may teach about religion but not teach religion itself. The history of religion, comparative religion and the Bible as literature are all permissible public school topics.
- Schools have the discretion to dismiss students to off-premises religious instruction - which is common in Utah.
"Many who labor under the misperception that schools must be religious-free zones will be surprised at how much accommodation of religious faith is constitutionally permissible," said Forest Montgom-ery, attorney for the National Association of Evangelicals.
He said people will likely be surprised at the groups who agree about that - including the ACLU and People for the American Way, which are staunch defenders of the separation of church and state.
Montgomery said, for example, his group and the ACLU recently joined forces to fight a North Dakota elementary school that tried to stop display of a poster by a student that depicted a cross and a flag that said, "Does the Son shine in your school?"
"This incident - all too common - demonstrates the need for this joint statement," Montgomery said.
Steven K. Green, legal director for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, said, "The statement shows that students have many opportunities for expressing their faith in the public school setting, including praying individually or with others."
Christian Legal Society Executive Director Samuel B. Casey said while the new document is a "good start," many gray areas still exist - such as student-initiated graduation prayer, funding of religious student groups and the ability of churches to participate in government social service programs.
"We need a constitutional amendment to resolve the school-related and other church-state issues conspicuously absent from this statement," he said.
Some of the other groups sponsoring the statement included the American Jewish Congress, American Muslim Council, Baptist Joint Committee, General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, the Interfaith Alliance and the Presbyterian Church.
Also included were the Christian Science Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church and the Missouri-based Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saint (not to be confused with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which was not a sponsor).